NASA's Flawed Mission to the Moon | Citizens Against Government Waste

NASA's Flawed Mission to the Moon

The WasteWatcher

In March 2019, Vice President Mike Pence announced the Trump administration’s goal of returning Americans to the moon by 2024.  This kicked off a substantial budget increase for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in part to expedite the building of the Space Launch System (SLS). 

In development since 2011, the SLS is an expendable launch vehicle designed to deliver astronauts to the Moon, and one day on to Mars, a mission that has been designated “Artemis” by NASA.  The agency claims that the SLS will also be capable of transporting scientific missions to celestial bodies even further from Earth, including Saturn and Jupiter.

Unfortunately, the SLS has been hampered by delays and cost overruns.  The latest bad news came on March 10, 2020, when a NASA Office of Inspector General (IG) report found that the cost of conveying astronauts to the moon by 2024 might balloon from the initial estimate of $35 billion to more than $50 billion, an increase of 43 percent.  The report blames a lack of oversight at NASA as well as poor performance on the part of Boeing, the prime contractor of the SLS.

According to the IG, “Each of the major element contracts for building the SLS for Artemis I – Stages, ICPS, Boosters, and RS-25 Engines – have experienced technical challenges, performance issues, and requirement changes that collectively have resulted in $2 billion of cost overruns and increases and at least 2 years of schedule delays.”  Artemis I refers to the first integrated flight of the SLS and the Orion spacecraft, the partially reusable crew vehicle being developed for the Artemis program.

NASA spent $14.8 billion on the SLS by the end of 2019 and will have obligated a total of $17.4 billion by the Artemis I launch date in late 2020.  However, according to the IG, NASA now expects the launch to be delayed until Spring 2021, or two years late, increasing total SLS costs to $18.3 billion.  Artemis II, the first crewed launch of Orion and the SLS, is scheduled to take place in late 2022.  If this launch is delayed until 2023, costs will spike to more than $22.8 billion.  By 2024, the SLS could cost in excess of $50 billion with Orion and ground systems factored in.

The IG report means more grief for Boeing, which already faces criticism for the poor performance of its Starliner crew capsule, meant to ferry crew to the International Space Station, KC-46 tanker, long over budget and behind schedule, and the continued grounding of the 737 Max aircraft.

As is typically the case with delays and cost overruns in NASA programs, more competition is needed.  In an era of booming commercial aerospace, NASA should reevaluate whether Artemis is still worthy of funding, and if the SLS remains the best positioned system to complete the mission.

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